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Originally published Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'History of a Pleasure Seeker': an ambitious interloper among the rich

Richard Mason's new novel "History of a Pleasure Seeker" treads into "Downton Abbey" and "Dangerous Liaisons" territory, as an ambitious man finds his way through cleverness and seduction into the world of the very rich. Mason reads in Seattle this week at several local bookstores.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Richard Mason

The author of "History of a Pleasure Seeker" will read at these Seattle-area locations:

• at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

• At 7 p.m. Tuesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or

• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or

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'History of a Pleasure Seeker'

by Richard Mason

Knopf, 277 pp., $25.95

Just try to resist Richard Mason's "History of a Pleasure Seeker." Its hero, a devilishly handsome fellow named Piet Barol, is the latest example of one of literature's favorite characters: a young person from a modest background who, by means of cleverness and charm, finds himself living among the rich and powerful. Or, to put it another way: This book, with its "Upstairs, Downstairs" setting, could be not unfairly described as a Continental "Downton Abbey" plus sex, with a dash of "Dangerous Liaisons" tossed in.

This is the fourth novel from the South African-born Mason, whose fiction debut "The Drowning People" (published when he was 21) sold more than a million copies worldwide — so he knows something about clever young men. In elegant, slightly formal prose, he quickly introduces us to Piet, who as the book begins is standing at the threshold of a grand house in 1907 Amsterdam, a five-story edifice "with hundreds of panes of glass that glittered with reflections of canal and sky." Piet is there to apply for a job as tutor to the young son of a wealthy hotelier, and is promptly hired — and, from the way the lady of the house is distracted by his "succulent red lips," we know that there'll soon be trouble afoot, or askirt. (And how: Jacobina, his employer/mistress, finds that his bedroom expertise "hurtled her into the air, only to catch her again on a zephyr breeze.")

As the story progresses, we're whisked from continent to continent: to New York City (where Piet's employer is trying to launch a little hotel called the Plaza), back to Amsterdam, and onto a lavish ship bound for South Africa, where Piet naturally finds a way to maneuver himself out of tourist class and into first. Mason peppers the book with tidbits about life in the early 20th century among the absurdly rich, indicating a keen eye for the irresistible detail. (Did you know that some wealthy Americans, once they found a ship they liked, simply reserved their favorite cabins for every scheduled crossing, just to make sure it was always available? Or that such a ship might well present a fully mounted and quite respectable onboard production of "Carmen"?)

Though the book is primarily told from Piet's point of view, we're taken into the minds of other characters, too: young Egbert, Piet's charge, so tormented by dark fantasies and voices that he's unable to leave the house; Louisa, Egbert's sister, who dreams of renouncing her upper-class birthright and opening a couture shop; Didier, a servant with the knack of turning up just when he's needed (in every possible way); Agneta, a maid who finally becomes frustrated by the upstairs-downstairs inequity and saunters out of the book in grandly purloined style, transformed by the delights of "an afternoon gown of peacock-blue satin, with a jacket trimmed in ermine."

All are richly drawn, but it's Piet who owns the story: a young man wildly gifted in the art of seduction, both sexual and otherwise (he knows how to smoothly negotiate a much higher salary than that initially offered, simply by dazzling the master of the house by his audacity in doing so). He's an adventurer who's sure to always land on his graceful feet, or in the lap of just the right fellow scamp who happens to admire "clean-smelling men with beautiful lips." That's where the book leaves him — but only temporarily. "History of a Pleasure Seeker" gives us a goodbye wink with perhaps the most tantalizing trio of words in the English language: "To be continued."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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